Read most histories of Arsenal and you will read of Henry Norris as being something of a dubious character. Among other things has been accused of bribing the League to get Arsenal into the first division in 1919.
Obviously that was over 100 years ago, but amazingly, new accusations keep turning up as when on 29 March 2020 the Daily Mirror newspaper ran the headline “Inside England’s match-fixing scandal that involved Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal” above a story by Simon Mullock, Chief Football Writer of the Sunday Mirror. So not a tale by a junior reporter, but by the chief football writer.
That story relates to events leading up to the first world war, and the main problem with the headline is that Arsenal have never been accused of being involved in any match-fixing scandal (although they have now!) until that article – which incidentally offered no evidence or details. It was Man U and Liverpool who were engaged in the multiple match-fixing affairs across a number of years leading up to the first world war. Arsenal were never mentioned.
But Arsenal’s name came up in the affair because the club’s chairman, Henry Norris, wrote a newspaper column in the pre-war period, and in it highlighted a match he had attended at Liverpool (not involving Arsenal), which he felt was fixed.
To the League’s eternal discredit, rather than investigate Norris’ claims (which were enhanced by several subsequently very obviously fixed matches, ultimately resulting in the FA enquiry Norris had demanded, and various players – although no directors – being banned from football for life) they stood by Liverpool and Man U, largely because their owners had gone to “the right school” and so wouldn’t be involved in any such thing.
So instead of following up that case, the League warned Norris that if he were to write anything more on the subject, he (rather than the match-fixers) would be banned from football for life (which was the standard penalty in those days, a penalty liberally handed out for virtually any offence. Even such luminaries as Herbert Chapman got a lifetime ban at one stage, and like most such bans his was later rescinded).
So where did all the anti-Norris stories come from?
Obviously in part from the FA, whose board was made up of gentlemen and the nobility, and who never felt that Henry Norris was “one of us”. He left school at 14, did not attend university, was outspoken, and made his money as a property developer. In other words, to the families of high pedigree who ran football clubs, he was an oik. When he did get his knighthood and became an army colonel it was because of what he had done, rather than through inheritance, which in those days proved he was “not one of us”.
Lt Col Sir Henry Norris, gained the knighthood and the rank the result of his extraordinary work in the War Office during the first world war, first in relation to sorting out recruitment so we had enough soldiers to fight the war and finally for being in charge of demobilisation after the first world war, an enormously complicated task since the UK was in part responsible for keeping the peace in France, and occupying Germany.
He was also the man who rescued Arsenal in 1910 when it was within days of going out of business. It was he who paid off the debts, chose to move Arsenal to Highbury, and who guaranteed the funds for the new ground. He also had the vision of a club ultimately owned by its supporters (an utterly radical thought which outraged the gentlemen running the other clubs) and it was he who recruited Herbert Chapman as manager.
He was also way ahead of his time seeking equal pay for women, the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers, and pensions for soldiers injured in the first world war.
These attitudes and his approach set Arsenal aside from other clubs and although the League and other club owners welcomed another strong club in north London as a bulwark against the growth of the Southern League, they were still willing to do anything to put down the upstart Norris.
The final battle between Norris and the FA came about, as can happen in such long running affairs, over something so trivial, the question of what happened to the money when Arsenal sold the reserve team bus. The answer was it went into Sir Henry’s wife’s account, and from there into the club’s funds. The club (which at the time still owed Sir Henry a huge amount from the loans he had put in) got the money shortly after they should have done, but the cheque took a circuitous route.
Since at the time one could countersign a cheque in order to pay it into an account other than that designated on the cheque, there was nothing unusual in this. But it was seized on by the FA Commission which investigated the affair.
Which brings us to this day in Arsenal’s history, as on this day
On 16 November 1927 Sir Henry Norris’ legal representatives wrote to Arsenal reminding them that the FA Commission of Inquiry was not a legal body and that Sir Henry was not accused of receiving any money illicitly. On the same day the club under its new anti-Norris board lost another case in court. This involved Norris ally George Peachey, the high court ruling that the FA had no power to remove him as a director of a club that was a member of the FA.
In the face of such hostility and with such utter disregard for all he had done for the club in rescuing it from extermination in 1910, Sir Henry Norris resigned from being a director at Arsenal but was still (and indeed remained for the rest of his life) a major shareholder in Arsenal.
Eventually the FA agreed that Sir Henry was not in any way accused of taking money for his own use from the club, but rather that the club had paid him some expenses – which was an odd claim given the sums he had given to Arsenal to clear the debts in 1910, and the guarantees and loans he made over the building of Highbury.
Nevertheless the FA rubber stamped the conclusion of the enquiry that four Arsenal directors from the previous regime – Hall, Jack Humble (Arsenal’s first ever chairman who led to move towards becoming a professional club), Peachey and Sir Henry – should be banned from the management of a football club.
Interestingly one of the charges Sir Henry faced was of illegally paying a player’s legal costs as with the case of Jock Rutherford who was stopped from playing (and thus stopped from being paid) by the FA until a legal case he was involved in (which Rutherford won) was resolved. Sir Henry supported the player (who was found innocent of all charges) and his family so they did not starve. After the court case the FA outrageously insisted on holding a further enquiry of their own, which meant that for another three months the player could not be paid, under FA rules. Again Sir Henry paid him from his own money. For that he was again charged and found guilty!
Indeed it was only those who were grabbing control of Arsenal at the time (primarily the Hill-Wood family) who saw Sir Henry as a criminal. His knighthood and rise from no rank to Lt Colonel and the incredibly important role of overseeing demobilisation speaks volumes for how his country saw him. London itself recognised his contribution to the capital as the longest serving elected mayor of all time (a record never surpassed) and indeed Sir Henry was made Deputy Lieutenant of London – the highest honour the city could give.
And immediately after the events described above the Independent Association of Arsenal Shareholders was instituted to give a voice to the thousands of shareholders not represented on the board, who had bought shares under Norris’ plan for a club owned by its fans.